The Way the Word Works

Series: Rewire

Sermon by David Strain on Mar 26, 2017

1 Corinthians 2:6-16

Well do please take a copy of the holy Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s first letter, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; 1 Corinthians chapter 2. And we’re going to be reading verses 6 through 16 on page 953 of the church Bibles. Let me remind you a little of where Paul’s argument has been running. We have been working our way through 1 Corinthians and we have seen Paul raise three truths that are designed to shatter pride. First of all, the nature of the message by which God speaks – chapter 1 verses 18 to 25. Then secondly, the members of the church that God saves – chapter 1:26-31. And then as we saw last time, the ministry that God deploys – chapter 2 verses 1 to 5. By the standards of the world, Paul has been saying, the Gospel message is foolishness, the members of the church for believing it are universally regarded as weak and foolish themselves, and the ministry fails frankly to measure up to contemporary norms and expectations of really what ought to characterize powerful rhetoric or charismatic leadership. And yet, for all of that, it is precisely by such means through this foolish message proclaimed by an unimpressive ministry, that these weak church members have been saved to the glory and praise of God.

And so the question naturally arises, “How does that work exactly?” How does God take the weak, foolish minister and through an apparently weak, foolish message, gather people saving them through that message knowing that by believing it they also will be considered weak and foolish? How does God get it done? That is the question Paul answers for us in the verses here before us in 1 Corinthians 2 verses 6 to 16. Before we read it together, however, let’s bow our heads as we pray. Let us pray.

O Lord, one of the great themes of this portion of the Scriptures is the ministry of the Holy Spirit who gives light to those who read and hear the Word. Would You give us His light now as the Word of God is read and preached that in the light the Holy Spirit gives we might see Your glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ? For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

1 Corinthians chapter 2 at the sixth verse. This is the inspired word of Almighty God:

“Yet among the mature, we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

 

‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ –

 

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

 

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.

In the opening verses of this portion of the chapter, Paul is wrestling with the way in which the world receives, or rather rejects, does not receive the wisdom of God but regards it as foolishness. And I was reminded of a story, probably apocryphal, about the way in which our presuppositions often color our conclusions. It’s a story that has resonated deeply with me for reasons that I hope will become immediately apparent as the story develops. It’s the story of a man who was diagnosed with depression. Nothing seemed to help him. He was passed from doctor to doctor, went from treatment to treatment. Nothing made a change in his condition. Everything else having failed, he was eventually sent for a dramatic and dangerous surgical procedure and in a last ditch effort to remedy his condition. There he is, lying on the table with the surgeons and the nurses around him waiting to be anesthetized and he is asked if he is comfortable. And when the nurse recognized his accent she immediately intervened, suddenly understanding the reason that no treatment ever worked. He wasn’t depressed at all; he was simply Scottish!

You know, they laughed that hard at eight-thirty as well and I was quite hurt at the time! Sometimes, sometimes despite the best wisdom available to us, we miss the truth altogether. We read the situation through the lens of our prior assumptions and so we reach faulty conclusions. That is exactly what Paul is saying happens with the Gospel in the world. The world hears the Gospel message about a God who has come down in Jesus Christ to save sinners by a cross and in light of the world’s presuppositions, rejects that message out of hand as foolishness. And yet rightly understood, Paul is going to show us though the world considers it to be folly, the Gospel is, in fact, the very definition of true wisdom. That is Paul’s point in verses 6 to 9 of chapter 2. We’re going to spend the bulk of our time in verses 10 to 16, but he sets up his argument in verses 6 to 9. Would you look there with me, please?
 

The Gospel message, he says, that the world dismisses as folly, verse 6, “is in fact wisdom we impart among the mature. Not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret, hidden wisdom of God which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” In other words, the world misses it completely. Living in rebellion against God, the human mind has been darkened by sin. All our assumptions have been skewed and distorted. God has, Paul, says, from eternity purposed to save by means of the cross of His Son and nobody got it. Nobody got that. Verse 8, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” You want proof to demonstrate that people misunderstand the wisdom of God? You need look no further than the cross. Consider what was happening at the cross. Here is God the Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity, made flesh, taking our humanity, sinless humanity united to perfect deity, for us and our redemption, come to make God known to us. No one has ever seen God, John says, “but the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared Him.” He’s shown Him to us. That’s why Jesus came – to make God known. The world has been searching for God, groping in the darkness toward God, seeking to discover Him, knowing that He is but not knowing Him, unable to find Him. How ought we to have responded, when seeing us in our ignorance and sin, He came to us in Jesus Christ? Ought we not to have said, “Here He is at last! Our quest is over! The God for which we have been searching all along has come to us, shown Himself to us in Jesus Christ!”

But what did we do? We nailed Him to a Roman cross and spat on Him. For all its claims of wisdom, the world misses the wisdom of God completely, doesn’t it? That is the force of Paul’s paraphrase of Isaiah 64 verse 4 which you will find in verse 9. Look at verse 9, please! “What no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” This is probably among the most famous verses in this letter and also among the most misunderstood and misinterpreted verses in this letter. Normally, or very often, we understand this verse to be a reference to heaven. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined what God has prepared in heaven for those who love Him.” That’s how we think that this verse should be understood. But it is, and it’s certainly a truth – of course, that’s true. None of us will ever guess at the glories that will one-day envelope up when we are together with the Savior in the glory to come. Certainly, that’s true, but it’s simply not what 1 Corinthians 2 verse 9 means. Paul isn’t talking about heaven. He is talking about God’s secret, hidden wisdom that has been revealed with the coming of Jesus Christ crucified. That is the message that eyes couldn’t search out, ears overhear or hearts invent. It’s a message, Paul is trying to tell us, that is beyond our capacity to deduce or calculate or discover on our own.

So how then can anyone know God? How is it that the Corinthians have come to know God? What hope is there for us if we are by nature doomed always to dismiss and distort the saving wisdom of God, seeing it simply always as foolishness and nonsense? Well, let’s look at verses 10 to 16 together, shall we, and notice Paul’s three-fold answer? In verses 10 and 11, he talks about revelation. God reveals Himself. Then in verses 12 and 13, he talks about inspiration. The revelation has been written down, communicated in words, by the apostles. Revelation, inspiration, then in verses 14 through 16, illumination. God deploys the Holy Spirit to give light to our understanding that we may receive the truth that has been preserved for us in the Scriptures.

Revelation

First of all then, revelation. Look at verses 10 and 11, please! “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” Paul says, “but these are the very things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” That is the fundamental claim, you know, of the Christian Gospel. It’s not a body of ethics developed over time, hammered out on the anvil of human experience; nor a collection of philosophical reasoning or the product of scientific investigation. It’s not the best guess of the religious imagination. No, this is revealed truth, revealed by God the Holy Spirit, to the apostles. Notice that in the beginning verses of chapter 2 Paul is speaking in the first-person singular. Do you see that in the opening verses of the chapter? He’s talking about the early days of his ministry among the Corinthians and he’s remembering how it was when he came to them. “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming the testimony of God with lofty speech.” Verse 2, “I decided to know nothing except Christ and him crucified.” Verse 3, “I was with you in weakness and fear” and so on. The first-person singular. This is a unique experience of the apostle Paul.

But then beginning in verse 6 and running through the rest of the chapter, he adopts the second-person plural. “Among the mature,” verse 6, “we do impart wisdom.” Verse 10, “These things God has revealed to us.” He’s not talking about himself, Paul, in his unique relationship to the Corinthians any longer. Now he’s talking about himself, Paul, among the other apostles to whom God, by His Spirit, has revealed the truth that Paul has been preaching. The apostolic message is not the invention of the church, much less the invention of Paul or Peter or John. It is the declaration of the revelation of God to the world.

The Spirit’s Revelation

And notice the illustration that Paul uses to help us understand how that works. Verses 10 and 11 again, “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God, for who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of a person which is in him. So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” I don’t know what you are thinking. You smile; you nod. I think you’re tracking with me but for all I know, right now you’re probably thinking about lunch. “Well I wasn’t before,” you say, “but now I am! Thanks a lot, pastor!” Well, I’m sorry about that but you get the point. Don’t you? I can’t tell simply by looking at you what’s going on in your mind nor can you about me. The only person who knows our thoughts is we ourselves. Likewise, the only person who can penetrate the depths of God is the Spirit of God Himself. The Spirit of God.

And yet, Paul says, this is the Spirit who has come to us and revealed to us these deep things. The question might be asked of Paul, “What makes you think you’re so special? Why do you think you have all the answers, Paul?” And I think he would quickly respond, “It’s not that I’m special or that I found the answers. But rather, God the Holy Spirit has revealed these truths to us.” And Paul and the apostles are merely sharing what has been revealed. That’s the first thing. It’s vitally important. If you want to know God, you must have revelation. He must expose, disclose, reveal, show Himself to you or you never will penetrate into the mystery of the God who has made you and who calls you to Himself. We need revelation.

Inspiration

Then look at verses 12 and 13. Having told us of the revelation of the Gospel given by the Spirit to the apostles, Paul now tells us where we can turn to access that revelation for ourselves. Here is inspiration! Verse 12, “Now we,” the apostles, “have received not the spirit of the world but the spirit who is from God that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” The apostles have been given the Spirit who has revealed to them the meaning, the significance of the life, death, resurrection and reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. And verse 13, “These things the apostles now impart in words.” Now if the verse ended there, it would expose us to all sorts of mistakes; actually, mistakes you will find currently in the wider church. Some conclude that the way inspiration works is that God the Holy Spirit reveals the big ideas to the apostles and then sort of leaves them to themselves to find the best way they can come up with to frame and communicate something of that to the world. And so they will tell us, “The Bible is of merely historical relevance and significance. We ought not to study the apostles’ words, meditate on the apostles’ words. That’s merely their best attempt to respond to the revelation given to them. No, what we must do is copy what they did and give our own best attempt to respond to direct, divine communication, to engage with the divine Spirit for ourselves.” It sounds terribly pious and beautiful, but what it gives us is a Bible you can’t trust. No sure word from God.

Words Given By the Spirit

And it’s actually not what Paul says. Look at verse 13. He’s not merely saying, “The Spirit revealed the big ideas and then we did our best to try and communicate it to you with fallible words.” What does he say? Verse 13, “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but words taught by the Spirit.” The very words themselves, brothers and sisters, this ought to be electrifying to us. Pick up the Book! The words on the page are the words given by the Spirit to the apostles to communicate to you the revelation of God for the salvation of your soul. That is extraordinary, glorious. What a precious book we have in the holy Scriptures.

Words Taught By the Spirit

And look at that last clause in verse 13. The words of the New Testament are words taught by the Spirit as the apostles “interpret spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” Now if you’re using a pew Bible or you have another copy of the English Standard Version, you will notice there’s a little footnote attached to that verse that indicates that the difficult Greek here is capable of various translations into English. A very wooden, literal rendering of Paul’s language would read something like, “We combine, compare, explain spiritual things with spiritual things.” Here’s what I think Paul is really trying to teach us. He’s saying, “The Spirit of God taught us the words to use to convey the revelation of Jesus Christ and we do that by making use of Spirit-given vocabulary to match Spirit-given realities. We fit spiritual things to spiritual words so that there is a precise, perfect correspondence between the revelation of Jesus Christ and the words on the page by which we communicate it to you.” Which is simply to say this. You can trust your Bible. In it, God Himself is talking. As you hear the Word read, you hear the voice of God.

God Speaks Through His Word

That’s what we mean when, before we read the Scriptures in church, the minister will say something like, “This is the inspired Word of God.” God is talking! That’s what we’re saying! There’s a delightful phrase in the preface to the Scots Confession of 1560 penned by John Knox in which he asks the reader, “That if any man will note in our confession any chapter or sentence contrary to God’s holy Word that it would please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity’s sake to inform us of it in writing. And we, upon our honor, do promise him,” – this is the phrase now – “do promise him that by God’s grace we shall give him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from holy Scripture, or else alter whatever he can prove to be wrong.” We will give him satisfaction from the mouth of God. Do you see what we are holding in your hands? The mouth of God, the voice of God! God is speaking in His Word. How do you neglect the Book? This is not a book among others. Its contents are not simply to be placed on a par with any other historical or ancient texts.  This is the very Word of God; God Himself speaking to your soul. How do we neglect the Book of God?

That, by the way, is why we seek to preach the way that we do. You don’t need to hear my ideas, much less do you need to hear someone else’s ideas. You don’t need to know what’s bothering me today. You don’t need a political manifesto or a call to social action or a commentary on the latest news. You need and I need the words on the pages of this Book – simply, clearly, systematically explained and applied to our hearts and our heads. That’s why, you know, our spiritual lives shrivel and die when the Bible stays closed and gathers dust on our shelves. That’s why church on the Lord’s Day no longer nourishes us and excites us and inflames us as once it did because the last time we opened the Book was the last time you sat in these pews. Maybe a week ago or two weeks ago or three weeks ago. And as we neglect the Bible, you know all we really do is neglect our own souls. We neglect our own souls. A closed Book and spiritual decline always, always go together. Here is the mouth of God, the Word of God addressing you. Revelation. Inspiration.

Illumination

Then finally, illumination. Remember the problem the apostle Paul has been wrestling with, really all the way through chapter 1. It is the problem of the way people respond, even to revelation from God. They reject it, don’t they? He really does crystallize and states the problem brilliantly in verse 14. Would you look there? Here’s the problem. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God for they are folly to Him. He is not able to understand them because they are spiritual discerned.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of William Wilberforce, the great advocate for the abolition of slavery who, after working for weeks and weeks and weeks on his nominal Christian friend, William Pitt the Younger, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time, managed to bring him along to church one Sunday to hear the famed, evangelical preacher, Richard Cecil. On the appointed Sunday, he shows up, they sit together in the pew, they go through the same worship service; here’s what happened in Lloyd-Jones’ words:

“Richard Cecil preached and expounded the glories of the kingdom of God and the relationship of the child of God to the Father. And Wilberforce was in ecstasy, rejoicing, reveling in this glorious truth. At the end of the service, they walked out and Wilberforce – you can imagine Wilberforce, what’s happening in his heart, as he wonders, ‘I wonder what the Lord is doing. This was an amazing sermon! What is the Lord doing in William Pitts’ life? I hope he’s listening!’ And he’s longing to hear the report. He doesn’t have long to wait,” Lloyd-Jones said. “Just as they got outside the vestibule, Pitt turned to Wilberforce who’d been so ravished by the exposition of the truth of God and said, ‘I didn’t understand a word that man was saying. What was it all about?’”

Now how do you account for that? They were hearing the same outstanding preaching. These are two great men going through the same worship service. One is on flights of joy under the ministry of the Word and to the other, he couldn’t make head nor tail of it! Verse 14 accounts for it. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God. They are folly to him. He cannot understand them for they are spiritually discerned.” That’s the great difference between William Wilberforce and William Pitt. I dare say it is the difference between some of us sitting here today. Some of you were once in darkness and have been brought into the light. Some of you remember the day when the Holy Spirit turned the lights on and you saw the truth – the truth about yourself and your sin and need and the truth about Jesus, a perfect Savior – and you were enabled to run to Him and trust Him and you received forgiveness and were made a new creature. Now you see and as you hear the Word, it’s life and light, it’s food for your soul, it’s guidance for your steps, it’s riches, it’s a source of joy!

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and You Will Be Saved

But others of you have heard the same message week in and week out and you can’t make head nor tail of it. You are still a natural person, not a spiritual person. That is to say, God by His Spirit has not yet broken in upon you and given you the light of life shining upon you the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. You will hear the greatest preachers, sit under the best arguments. You will have Christian friends plead with you day in and day out and it will have no effect, no effect unless God, by His Spirit, gives you light. You can’t reason your way to this. You can’t be argued into this. You don’t stumble upon this. It is the work of God and so today, if you relate to William Pitt rather than to William Wilberforce, your great need is not for a better argument, it is for the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh, to open your eyes to see that while you’ve been ready, as Spurgeon put it last time – do you remember? – “to do fifty things. Only one thing is needful – believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

Our Access to the Mind of Christ

Paul asks a rhetorical question. Do you see it in verse 16? “Who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct Him?” As though he were anticipating an objection. No one has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything. Surely you’re not suggesting, Paul, that by the Holy Spirit now you’ve become a master of all truth, are you? “Of course not,” he says. And yet, look at what he says. “We have the mind of Christ.” That’s what we have in the Bible. We have access to the mind of Christ. God, by His Spirit, enlightening our understanding, guiding our steps so that, as he puts it in verse 15, “the spiritual person judges all things.” We find our way under the governance and direction of God through His Word. The mind of Christ is ours. No longer bumbling around in the darkness; now we see! And yet for all the glories of the Scriptures, for all the access it provides us to divine revelation, unless and until the Holy Spirit gives you light, you will never see. And so cry to God, cry to God to open your eyes that you might behold glorious things in His Word. Cry to God that He would make you a new creation, a new creature; that He would bring you to Jesus. Cry to Him that He would turn the lights on and illuminate the dark room of your mind to see your need and see how Jesus perfectly answers to your need that you might run to Him today without delay.

What the world thinks is foolishness, the Gospel of the cross, is, in fact, the revelation of God to the world. Revelation. We have access to it today in the inspired words of the apostles preserved in our Bibles. How we ought to love this Book! Inspiration. It is only by the illumination of the Spirit that saving understanding will ever dawn in our hearts. Would you pray for the Holy Spirit to give you the light of life? Revelation, inspiration, illumination. May the Lord bless to us His holy Word that we, all of us, may come to love the book divine and by the illumination of the Spirit hear and respond to His Word. Let us pray together!

Our Father, we bless You for Your holy Word, this sacred Book, these words on the page that speak life and light to us. Would You please forgive us for our neglect of it, forever thinking that it is safe to leave its pages closed and to have our minds rather informed by the pulp noise of the world? O Lord, open the Book and open our hearts to the truth that it contains, that there in the truths of Your holy Word we, each of us, all of us, might meet and know Jesus Christ for ourselves. For we ask this in His name, amen.

© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.

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